27 November 1914|
|Died||30 June 1976
|Years of service||1933–1945|
|Unit||1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler|
|Commands held||1st SS Reconnaissance Battalion LSSAH|
|Battles/wars||World War II|
|Awards||Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross
Iron Cross 1st Class
Iron Cross 2nd Class
German Cross in Gold
Winter War Medal 1941/42
Infantry Assault Badge
Close Combat Clasp in Gold
Wound Badge in Silver
SS Honour Ring
Gustav Knittel (27 November 1914 — 30 June 1976) was an SS-Sturmbannführer (Major) in the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler who was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, the German Cross in Gold and the Close Combat Clasp in Gold. He was a convicted war criminal.
Gustav Knittel was born in Neu-Ulm, in Bavaria, on 27 November 1914. He had a fraternal twin brother Bernhard and two sisters. His parents Bernhard senior and Theresia (née Pfinder) ran a bakery in Neu-Ulm, Schützenstraße 52. Knittel attended the Volksschule and Realschule in Ulm and the Oberrealschule in Göppingen.
Knittel joined the Allgemeine SS on 15 April 1933. He believed this to be a suitable preparation for a professional military career while he was still in school. As this was a formality for new SS members he became a member of the Nazi Party on 1 May 1933. He was assigned to the 79. SS-Standarte in Ulm and with this unit he took part in the 1933 Nuremberg Rally.
Following the passing of his Abitur in March 1934 Knittel applied for a position in the Reichswehr but he was rejected. He then decided to pursue a career in what became the Waffen-SS and was transferred to the SS-Standarte Deutschland of the SS-Verfügungstruppe in Ellwangen in October 1934. He graduated from the SS-Junkerschule Bad Tölz in 1938. He returned to SS-Regiment Deutschland and with this unit Knittel took part in the occupation of the Sudetenland after the Munich Agreement. He served with various SS units before becoming adjutant of SS Reserve Battalion Ellwangen in August 1939.
Shortly before the German invasion of France and the Low Countries Knittel was transferred to the 15th (motorcycle) company of the Leibstandarte. He was to replace Max Wünsche as a platoon commander (the other platoon commanders being Hugo Kraas and Hermann Weiser) but the transfer was postponed until after the capitulation of The Netherlands. Knittel took part in the Battle of France saw action at Wormhout and Bollezeele and was awarded the Iron cross 2nd class before he was wounded while leading the attack on Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule on 19 June 1940 and transported to a German field hospital in Troyes. The campaign in France also earned him the Infantry Assault Badge and the Wound Badge in black. When the commander of the 15th (motorcycle) company, Kurt Meyer, raised the Aufklärungsabteilung LSSAH (Reconnaissance Battalion LSSAH) in Metz in late 1940 he assigned Knittel as commander of the 4th (heavy) company. Knittel recovered from his leg wound in the SS hospital in Hohenlychen and returned to the Leibstandarte in November 1940.
After taking part with the Reconnaissance Battalion LSSAH in the German attack on Yugoslavia and the battle for Greece he next participated in Operation Barbarossa: the German invasion of the Soviet Union. He led his company during the drive of the Leibstandarte on Zhytomyr but was wounded during the fighting for the heights north of Marchlewsk on 11 July 1941. This time Knittel had sustained shrapnel wounds and he was shot through the right armpit. He recovered in Hohenlychen hospital again and he was then posed to the SS Training camp Dachau. He was awarded the Iron Cross 1st class and returned to his company in November.
Knittel distinguished himself on 19 November 1941 during the attack on Sultan-Sali during the battle for Rostov and later between 27 November and 1 December when he led an ad hoc Kampfgruppe (battlegroup) to defend the German retreat on Taganrog against the Red Army.
In March 1942 he was appointed as the company commander of the 3rd (light half-track) company in the Reconnaissance Battalion LSSAH. After formation of this unit at the Sennelager training grounds in Germany and further training in Normandy, Knittel led this company during the battle for Kharkov and distinguished himself between 2 and 4 February 1943. Having received orders to lead an ad hoc battlegroup formed around his company and move behind enemy lines to cover the retreat of the 298. Infanterie-Division, he made contact with this battered division in Shevchenkove, was cut off by the advancing Red Army but managed to fight his way back to the German lines with his battlegroup and a group of rescued soldiers. He further distinguished himself when the 1st SS reconnaissance Battalion LSSAH was encircled in Alexejewka and Knittel led one of the counterattacks against the Red Army on 13 February. The following day the battalion was saved from destruction because Max Wünsche managed to reach Alexejewka coming from Yefremivka with his tank regiment. On 15 February Meyer and Wünsche wanted to reach the lines of Fritz Witt and Knittel with his company was sent to Bereka to reconnoitre the planned route. He found Bereka occupied by the Red Army and he was wounded in the following attack. The next day the combined battlegroup of Meyer and Wünsche managed to reach Yefremivka. Knittel was hospitalized with a leg wound but returned to his company for the successful counterattack on Kharkov. Following the recapture of Kharkov, Emil Wawrzinek, one of the platoon commanders who served under Knittel, was awarded the German Cross in Gold.
In April 1943 Meyer left the Reconnaissance Battalion LSSAH and Knittel succeeded him as battalion commander. He was wounded on 11 July during the Battle of Kursk but stayed with his troops. Knittel led his battalion in Italy and during the 1943–1944 winter battles in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, further distinguishing himself at Turbovka and at Divin, where he personally led his men around the defensive positions of the Red Army and took the town from the east by surprise. He was awarded the German Cross in Gold on 23 January 1944.
He continued to lead the remains of his battered battalion during the battles in February and March, earning the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross for securing the Bowenez Pocket between Ternopil and Proskurov on 13 March and his defence of Hill 300 south of Andrejewka between 30 March and 1 April 1944. To defend Hill 300 Knittel led the men of the 68. Infanterie-Division back into their defensive positions after they had been pushed out by the attacking Red Army. He then managed to fend off four more attacks from the Red Army that day and one more on 1 April. This enabled the German Army to safely cross the Zbruch River and retreat to Lemberg. The decimated Leibstandarte was then transferred to Belgium. Knittel set up his headquarters in Turnhout where he was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on 4 June 1944. His former adjutant Hans-Martin Leidreiter, who now led a company, was awarded the German Cross in gold.
The Leibstandarte was shipped to Normandy a week after D-Day and Knittel led his battalion during the German attempts to counter the allied invasion. It was in Normandy that he realized that Germany would lose the war, especially after he witnessed the devastating power of the allied fighter-bombers and artillery during Operation Lüttich and in the Falaise Pocket. After the retreat from France Knittel left for a short holiday in Neu-Ulm. He was awarded the Close Combat Clasp in gold on 13 October 1944 and he tried hard to obtain a position behind the front which he found as commander of the Field Replacement Battalion LSSAH in Lübbecke.
The Battle of the Bulge
Divisional commander Wilhelm Mohnke ordered Knittel to return to the Leibstandarte. On 13 December 1944 he arrived at the divisional headquarters near Euskirchen where he asked Mohnke to grant Emil Wawrzinek the command of the 1st SS reconnaissance Battalion LSSAH. Wawrzinek had led the battalion since its return from France and had rebuilt it during the past months. But the next day Mohnke insisted that Knittel had to lead the reinforced battalion that would become Schnelle Gruppe (fast group) Knittel.
That same day, 14 December, Knittel was briefed about the upcoming Operation Wacht am Rhein, the German attempt to break through the American lines and cut the allied forces in two. With the Leibstandarte as spearhead of the 6th Panzer Army of Sepp Dietrich Schnelle Gruppe Knittel was to follow the battlegroups of Joachim Peiper and Max Hansen, then use its speed to capture a bridge across the Meuse River south of Liège enabling the Leibstandarte to move toward Antwerp. On 15 December Knittel was further briefed at the headquarters of Hermann Prieß, the commanding officer of the 1st SS-Panzerkorps. During this briefing Otto Skorzeny was introduced and the details of Operation Greif were revealed. After this meeting Knittel drove to the command post of his battalion in Glaadt to pass the orders and specifics on to his company commanders.
The offensive started the next day, 16 December 1944. Initially Knittel advanced quickly, following in the wake of Peiper and Hansen without enemy contact, marching over Holzheim, Hosingen, Honsfeld and Born. On 17 December a scouting party of Schnelle Gruppe Knittel murdered eleven African-American soldiers of the 333rd Artillery Battalion in Wéreth.
On 18 December it became clear that Peiper made the best progress and Mohnke ordered Knittel to follow that battlegroup. After a short meeting with Hansen in Recht, Knittel moved to Stavelot. After leaving instructions for his company commanders he crossed the Amblève River bridge in Stavelot at noon to contact Peiper in La Gleize. Elements of his battlegroup followed during the afternoon and early evening but the American 30th Infantry Division managed to recapture the northern part of the town, blocking the advance route of the rest of Schnelle Gruppe Knittel and the battlegroup of Rudolf Sandig. The next day, 19 December, Mohnke ordered Knittel and the elements of his fast group that did manage to reach La Gleize back to Stavelot to recapture the town and open the advance route which was also essential in supplying battlegroup Peiper with fuel and ammunition. Knittel set up his command post in the Antoine Farm west of Stavelot. The counterattack he deployed failed but that day members of his battalion murdered civilians in Parfondruy, Renardmont and Stavelot. That evening the Americans demolished the bridge in Stavelot.
Increased pressure from American forces stalled the advance of the Leibstandarte and continued attempts from Knittel and Sandig to recapture Stavelot failed while Peiper had come to a halt in La Gleize. The elements of Schnelle Gruppe Knittel on the western bank of the Amblève River were trapped between Stavelot, Coo and Trois-Ponts. On 20 December Taskforce Lovelady from 3rd Armored Division attacked Knittels positions from the direction of Trois-Ponts but was halted by a King Tiger tank and some anti-tank guns positioned near Petit-Spai. That evening elements from the 82nd Airborne Division moved in on the positions near Petit-Spai and cut off the road to Wanne. On 21 December elements of the 3rd Armored Division pushed Schnelle Gruppe Knittel out of its positions in Ster but elements of Kampfgruppe Hansen had reached Petit-Spai during the night and their counterattack pushed the 82nd Airborne Division back to Trois-Ponts. On 22 December a major attack from the 30th Infantry Division threw Knittels men out of their positions at the western edge of Stavelot.
It had become clear that the Meuse River could not be reached and Peiper decided on 23 December to abandon his vehicles and march through the woods to escape capture. He left La Gleize with the remaining men. 36 hours later he reached the German lines at Petit-Spai and marched to Wanne. In the early morning of 25 December Knittel cleared his positions on the western bank of the Amblève River and withdrew his men to Wanne. There the Leibstandarte regrouped before moving to the Bastogne area. The Ardennes Offensive ended for Knittel when airplanes from the American 9th Tactical Airforce bombed his command post near Vielsalm on 31 December 1944. He was hospitalized in Germany with a serious concussion.
Trial and imprisonment
In May 1945 Knittel returned to his family in Neu-Ulm but soon decided to hide on a farm near Stuttgart. He returned to his hometown later that year but when he met with his wife on 5 January 1946 he was captured by Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) agents Michel Thomas and Theodore Kraus. Knittel was imprisoned in the CIC prison in Ulm and interrogated by Thomas. Knittel later claimed that he was physically abused by his guards but Thomas denied this accusation.
In March Knittel was transferred to Schwäbisch Hall, where Peiper and the other suspects of the Malmedy Massacre were detained. Knittel and his Schnelle Gruppe had not taken part in the Malmedy Massacre since they had used a more southerly route but he was soon questioned about war crimes in the Stavelot area. Knittel confessed that on December 21, 1944, he ordered the murder of eight American prisoners of war near Petit-Spai, east of Trois-Ponts. Following his self-incriminating confession he was sentenced to life imprisonment on 16 July 1946 during the Malmedy massacre trial.
Knittel and his lawyers immediately filed a request with the War Crimes Board of Review to have his case reopened. He retracted his confession and like other defendants he complained that the interrogations included psychological torture. Knittel claimed to have been threatened with being handed over to the Belgians and that his interrogators suggested that signing a confession or not was the choice between fair American justice and Belgian revenge. Knittel complained that his defence lawyers had not been allowed to use the war diaries of the American units which had opposed his Schnelle Gruppe during the Battle of the Bulge to prove that no Americans were murdered at the date and location he gave in his confession. This is however a questionable defence since the war diary of the 82nd Airborne Division shows that on December 21, 1944, during the battle between elements of Schnelle Gruppe Knittel and the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, an eight man strong bazooka team was captured by the Germans and reported Missing in Action.
Unaware of the contents of the war diary of the 82nd Airborne Division, in March 1948 the reviewing authority reduced his sentence to 15 years imprisonment. In May 1948 the War Crimes Review Board Nr. 4 rejected the claim that irregularities had occurred during the trial against Knittel but following the Simpson Report and the findings of the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services his sentence was further reduced to 12 years imprisonment. Knittel was released from Landsberg Prison on 7 December 1953 following a Christmas Amnesty.
- SS-Rottenführer: 1 September 1936
- SS-Unterscharführer: 1 August 1937
- SS-Untersturmführer: 9 November 1938
- SS-Obersturmführer: 9 November 1939
- SS-Hauptsturmführer: 9 November 1941
- SS-Sturmbannführer: 24 April 1943
- Adjutant SS-Kradschützen-Reserve Battalion "Ellwangen": 26 August 1939 – May 1940
- Platoon Commander 15 Company/LSSAH, 15 May – 19 August 1940
- Commander 4th Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion LSSAH, 19 August 1940 – March 1942
- Commander 3rd Company 1st Reconnaissance Battalion LSSAH, March 1942 – April 1943
- Commander 1st SS Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion LSSAH, 22 April 1943 – August 1944
- Commander SS Field Reserve Battalion LSSAH, September 1944 – 12 December 1944
- Commander 1st SS Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st SS Panzer Division LSSAH, 14 December 1944 – 31 December 1944 (wounded)
- Iron Cross
- 2nd Class (13 June 1940)
- 1st Class (14 September 1941)
- Infantry Assault Badge in Bronze (3 October 1940)
- Close Combat Badge
- Bronze (7 September 1943)
- Silver and Gold (13 October 1944)
- German Cross in Gold (23 January 1944)
- Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross (4 June 1944)
- Wound Badge of 1939 in Silver
- Sudetenland Medal
- Eastern Front Medal
- Honour Sword of the Reichsführers-SS
- SS Honour Ring 
- Waffen SS
- 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler
- List of Knight's Cross holders 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler
- SS Personalakten - Record Group 242, Publication A3343, SSO, Roll 185 (NARA)
- SS RuSHA Akten - Record Group 242, Publication A3343, Series RS, Roll C5567 (NARA)
- Meyer, Kurt. Grenadiers: The Story Of Waffen SS General Kurt 'Panzer' Meyer (2005) Stackpole Military History ISBN 0-8117-3197-9
- Kriegstagebuch LAH RS/1215 (Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv)
- Verlustmeldungen der Aufklärungsabteilung LAH, Microfilm M861 (Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv)
- Vorschlag zum Deutschen Kreuz in Gold - Moore, John P. Führerliste der Waffen-SS (2003). J.P. Moore Publishing
- Lehmann, Rudolf and Tiemann, Ralf. The Leibstandarte vol. III, J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing, Inc. ISBN 0-921991-05-3
- Vorschlag zum Ritterkreuz - Moore, John P. Führerliste der Waffen-SS (2003). J.P. Moore Publishing
- Lehmann, Rudolf and Tiemann, Ralf. The Leibstandarte vol. IV/1, J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing, Inc. ISBN 0-921991-16-9
- Aussagen Gustav Knittels im Malmedy-Prozeß, Microfilm P26-A (NARA)
- Pallud, Jean-Paul. Battle of the Bulge: Then and Now. After the Battle Magazine; 2nd edition (June 1986). ISBN 0-900913-40-1
- Kartheuser, Bruno. Dokumentation Kriegsverbrechen Stavelot Dezember 1944 – Documentation Crimes de guerre Stavelot, décembre 1944 (1994). Krautgarten, St. Vith.
- Robbins, Christopher. Test of Courage: The Michel Thomas Story (2000). New York Free Press/Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-7432-0263-3 // Republished as Courage Beyond Words (2007). New York McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-149911-3
- Letter from Gustav Knittel to the head of the U.S. Army Secret Service, dated 5 January 1950 (NARA)
- Aussagen Gustav Knittels im Malmedy-Prozeß, Microfilm P82-A (NARA)
- Affidavit by Gustav Knittel, dated 15 March 1948 (NARA)
- Affidavit by Gustav Knittel, dated 1 May 1949 (NARA)
- Letter from Gustav Knittel to Willis M. Everett jr., dated 16 February 1948 (NARA)
- Berger, Florian. Ritterkreuzträger mit Nahkampfspange in Gold. Selbstverlag Florian Berger, 2004. ISBN 3-9501307-3-X.
- Fellgiebel, Walther-Peer (2000). Die Träger des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939–1945 – Die Inhaber der höchsten Auszeichnung des Zweiten Weltkrieges aller Wehrmachtsteile [The Bearers of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross 1939–1945 — The Owners of the Highest Award of the Second World War of all Wehrmacht Branches] (in German). Friedberg, Germany: Podzun-Pallas. ISBN 978-3-7909-0284-6.